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Energy Department to investigate WIPP

The entrance to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant nuclear waste repository outside Carlsbad. The DOE will be looking into the operations of the federal government’s underground nuclear waste repository. (Source: WIPP)

CARLSBAD – The U.S. Energy Department will be looking into the operations of the federal government’s underground nuclear waste repository in southern New Mexico after reports that workers may have been exposed to hazardous chemicals last year.

The Carlsbad Current Argus reports that the federal agency’s Office of Enterprise Assessments filed a notice in late January of its intent to investigate Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that runs the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

The notice states employees were potentially “overexposed” to carbon tetrachloride, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide between July and October 2018.

The DOE says it intends to investigate the circumstances, and fines against the contractor could result based on what’s uncovered.

NWP spokesman Donavan Mager said the contractor is aware of the investigation and plans to work with DOE throughout the proceedings.

The repository was carved out of an ancient salt formation about a half mile below the desert, with the idea that the shifting salt would eventually entomb the radioactive tools, clothing, gloves and other debris that make up the waste that is shipped from sites around the country.

John Heaton, chair of the Carlsbad Mayor’s Nuclear Task Force, said the problem arose because of inadequate airflow in the underground portion of the repository. Airflow was restricted following a radiological release in 2014 that resulted in a nearly three-year shutdown.

Heaton said more air is needed to accommodate all the work that goes on underground, from mining and maintenance of the facility to the emplacement of waste.

“Every piece of equipment has a certain amount of airflow it needs. Every person has a certain amount of airflow they need,” he said. “They’ve been working to address these exhaust issues.”

Officials have said that rebuilding the repository’s ventilation system is expected to solve the airflow concerns. WIPP officials say it could take another 2½ years to complete the project.

Don Hancock, with the Albuquerque-based watchdog group Southwest Research and Information Center, said the possible exposure was the most recent example of the contractor not properly managing the repository.

“This is a constant problem where workers are exposed to dangers, radioactive or otherwise, that shouldn’t have happened,” Hancock said. “These are not just paperwork problems.”

He also criticized Nuclear Waste Partnership for a “lack of transparency” in reporting safety issues to the public and employees. He said workers won’t know they’re even in danger if they’re not being told.